Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Chapter 40: Black



Please note: This chapter may contain some triggers for some readers.


Neith didn’t remember hitting the ground but she was there now.  She could open her right eye with considerable effort.  The left was fused shut.  It throbbed. 

She was being dragged.  Sticks and roots clawed at her thin cotton dress or wedged into her ribs or hips.  They poked then stung before snapping, or – based on the damp heat and protrusion she felt in her side – sometimes pierced through into her flesh.

She saw nothing but tree litter.  It was dappled in light that reminded her of the onset of migraines.

She worked out she was being towed uphill then passed out.

#

Neith came to.  She wasn’t being dragged anymore.  She wasn’t sure she was outside either.  She could hear someone else’s breath.  Close.  Who?  She could feel someone’s legs against hers.  Very close.  She lay in a loose ball.  Her breath felt stale and hot around her lips.  Her face was in dirt.  She attempted to twist off of her left side – away from the blinding pain that threatened to take her awareness from her.  She wanted to rest her face on the right; so she could regroup.  Turning her head brought on flashes of red and black. She let out a loud breath of defeat.  Impacted side for a pillow it was then.  It occurred to her that had she succeeded, she would have presented the eye that was welded closed face-up, preventing her from seeing anything; from seeing whose legs she felt on her own. 

She hurt.  Everywhere.  Definitely a puncture – somewhere in the mid-section.

“Go ahead, open your eye.”  A soft laugh.  A twisted, sweet, high laugh, to go with the breath and legs beside her in the dirt. 

Neith did as she was told, flinching at the debris that shifted in her eye cavity as she did.

Were they in a tent?  She opened her eye to mostly dark.  She closed it again.  No, there had been dirt...near her mouth.

She thrust out her bottom jaw and lip and blew up across her face.  She reopened her eye.

Neith could see now.  She was pressed up against Ihaka – the smiling assistant, non-wife.  The woman lay curled beside Neith on the side of Neith’s open, good eyeher right.  Ihaka must have been knocked out and dragged here too. 

“Good news – I found one part of me that doesn’t hurt,” Neith announced, referencing her right eye. 

Ihaka didn’t reply.  Perhaps she was too unnerved by the ordeal they’d endured. 

Neith’s pained stomach lurched remembering Miles’ wife, Wren, and her fear of returning to Nydia.  Who had meant Wren harm; done her harm?  It looked like someone had been missing his fix since Wren had left.  Were Neith and Ihaka new targets?  Part of a sadistic two-fer?  “Where are we?” 

“A hide.  I built this one myself, would you believe?  It’s one of my best.”  Ihaka’s teeth showed in the dull light.

“A hide.  I’m not sure I know what that is, but I can guess…”  How ironic to have built something, only to find yourself prisoner inside it.  “Why are we here, exactly?”

“Because God is punishing us.”

Oh boy.  Ihaka thought they deserved this?  Neith chose her words carefully.

“That sucks.  I had someone I was meant to talk to this morning.”  Her stomach lurched again.  “I get it, He doesn’t take a number.”  Nothing, not even a pity laugh.  “So, what are you in for?”

“We are both here because Nydia needs us to be.”

Neith could feel her arms were tightly restrained – by inability to function or some kind of bonds, or both.  This alarmed her, because she could see Ihaka’s fair forearm coming towards her face.  Ihaka was not restrained.  Ihaka dipped her finger under the curtain of hair Neith had felt fall back onto her face when she’d blown up across it earlier.  Miss Free-hands tucked the dark strands behind Neith’s ear.  Her right ear didn’t hurt much either.  Two body parts.  Win?  She grimaced at her own feeble attempt to find a positive to cling to in order to deflect the wrongness in the intimacy of Ihaka’s gesture.  Neith hadn’t missed unwelcome touching.

“There.  Now I can see that pretty face of yours.”

Ihaka seemed to believe the young women belonged wherever they were.  Perhaps she’d been here long enough to be persuaded this was okay.  Or maybe she was being threatened in some other way – maybe that was why her arms were free.  Otherwise she would run, wouldn’t she?  Maybe Neith had a chance of convincing her to release Neith, although her certainty in explaining the justice of their current position nagged at her; Ihaka wasn’t upset by where they were.

With the hair gone, Neith looked towards the horizontal sliver of light coming into the hide.  Far into the distance, she could see the Snow family’s outhouse, side door, and the top of their stone wall.

She swallowed bile with the realisation. 

“That’s right.  There’s a perfect view from here, don’t you think?”  Ihaka’s voice dripped with pleasure.  Neith began to fear her co-captured was not captured at all. 

“This is what it felt like.  To wait.  And watch.”

Nope, not captured.  Demented.

Neith’s eyes darted up, down and around in the hollow space.  She was confined within what felt like the void of a boulder.  As well as acute pain.  She also felt contrarily sleepy.  She closed her eyes.

“Come now, Miss Neith.  I’ve waited so long for you to wake up.”  Ihaka’s fingers ran over Neith’s cheek.  Neith pulled away.  How long?  How long had Ihaka waited next to her in this space?  And could Passive-Aggressive Hide-builders smell fear?  “I’ve almost had enough rest now.  Soon, we can head up hill – that’s where I’m going to do it.  I think I can hold you up again now, to get you there.  I have my breath back.”

Neith was out of jokes.  There was no hidden comic relief to pull from this conversation.  It was time to scream.   Neith spat out muck and she drew her mouth open before she bellowed as well as she could.  She heard most of her voice absorbed in the hollow space, bouncing back in a spiteful echo. 

“Oh, Miss Neith, do you have to be that way?  It would be so much better if we could talk.  Isn’t that what you like to do most?  Talk and talk?”

Adjusting to the darkness, Neith could see Ihaka’s brow drawn up in melodramatic concern.   Neith knew then: Nola had been complaining on Longest Day about this woman.  Ihaka – the condescending, too-bright-and-cheery assistant.  Before Neith could try shouting again, Ihaka gripped her chin, cold and tight, and began ramming a cloth deep into Neith’s mouth. It stank and soured her tongue with mildew.  Neith gagged and thrashed in the small space.  She began to wonder if this was it – forget the Nydia’s council sentencing her for crimes, or MinSci sentencing her for crimes, she was going to die inside a rock.  She kicked again with another retch of distress at the stoppage in her mouth.  An acute torment of pain exploded in her leg.  She again passed out.

#

Neith awoke.  There was no change to the containment she’d felt earlier on all sides, she was still in the hide.  Her mouth and lips were dry and sore.  The cloth was still in place, and she began releasing muffled coughs and gagging noises.  Ihaka was still there.  Asleep, her face close to Neith’s.  Inches from Neith.  There was nowhere or way to move from the sickening closeness.  Ihaka hadn’t seemed injured.  Had they been away so long she was simply tired? 

Did Neith have her phone with her?  Could she somehow link to her proximity chip to alert MinSci she was trapped with a very troubled soul?  She would need to free her hands. Then she could tell them – she was inside a rock in the middle of unchartered forest.  No, no phone – she’d left it stuffed under the couch cushions back at Elle’s.  But the proximity chip – surely MinSci had detected elevated stress signals from her and mapped her movements’ trajectory.  Now she would be represented by a steady blip in one spot.  Was that blip so close to Elle’s cabin that MinSci didn’t understand there was cause for alarm?  Her chip would have marked her at a very similar location for long periods of time in the past.  But not with elevated vitals.

Eventually someone in Nydia or Feichangbei would be alarmed.  Someone was coming.  Elle had asked her to be quick.  Whether they knew Nydia’s bad apples had come out to play or not, Neith disappearing was unusual.  Someone would come looking.  All she had to do was wait.  She could do this.  Swallowing was vile with the gag.  Her one good eye was blurring with tears involuntarily.

Neith stretched very slowly and peered through the line of light down the hill to the stone wall.  Her breath was ragged.  She was close enough to know the wall was the Snows, but it was too far for anyone there to hear any sound she could make, even without most of that sound being trapped. That was without a gag.  She looked back to Ihaka.

Ihaka’s eyes were open. 

Neith may have wet herself.

“Shall we start over?”  Ihaka coaxed, dipping her head towards Neith.

Neith nodded.  Ihaka gripped then pulled on the cloth protrusion from Neith’s mouth.  Neith gulped in fusty air.  She wanted to say, Hi, my name’s Neith, and buy some time, you know, “start over.”  Instead she turned her lips inwards and concentrated on counting with her breaths in and out; one, two, one, two.

“Neith, we are waiting in what is called a hide.  I built it myself.  Do you like it?”  Ihaka’s every syllable dripped with satisfaction at having control of the conversation.  Neith nodded.  Ihaka laughed again.  “So quiet!  You forget – I know you like to talk.”  Neith didn’t want to talk now.  She wanted help to be here already.  “I learned to build hides with Wren and Wren’s dad.  She was my best friend, you know – since birth.  Her dad was a hunter.  A good one.  He used hides like these, taking unsuspecting prey who never saw or smelled he was there, waiting.”  The bile, the bile was back.  Neith didn’t want to experience how things could get worse – she’d thought they couldn’t.  Being trapped in a hollow with a tortured human was bad enough, but adding vomit would be worse.  Ihaka continued: “I begged to go on the hunt.  He was always taking Wren on his trips, hiding in dug-outs, having adventures, bringing back venison or pork for all of Nydia.  It would last a whole week!  Everyone celebrated.  I wanted to be part of that.  But they always said no. No, Little Ihaka – the girl with a boy’s name – she doesn’t need to learn how to hunt.  She can help out somewhere else, do something simple.  She doesn’t have it in her.” 

Neith didn’t like where this was going.  She needed to speak.  She tried for redirection.  “I like your name.  I’d never heard it before I came here.”

It was as though Ihaka hadn’t heard her. 

“I realise now that it was mostly Wren saying no.  I thought I had convinced them.  Finally, he took me out too.”  She drew a beating breath noisily but failed to release the sob it promised.  “Then I knew why Wren never wanted me to come.”  Ihaka swallowed, and closed her eyes.  She was crying now.  Neith felt sorry for her.  Also: scared.  “She was protecting me.  From him.  From the things he did to her…out in the hides.”  Wren’s father drove Wren away – having done things that would drive any daughter away.  Ihaka choked but kept speaking.  “But he still loved her, you know?  He even…married her.  But not me.  I can tell, when he looks at me, he wants no part of it.  Of all of it.”  At first Neith thought Ihaka was still referring to her tormentor, through the choking – but Neith sure hoped he was rotting somewhere incapable of “still loving” anyone.  She meant Miles.  She had switched to talking about Miles, midway. This wasn’t about a co-captor airing her grievances in a hide she was sorry to find herself in.  “That’s how I knew I needed to Atone.  I wasn’t worthy.  I deserved to be alone as I was.”

Neith knew now, there was no third party in this assault.  Ihaka was no co-captive.  Ihaka had carefully planned all of it.  Not Tai – the openly hostile aggressor.  It was all Ihaka.  Ihaka had laid in wait and watched.  Ihaka had carefully left notes in shoes, made nettle bouquets, and painted messages in blood.  Ihaka had done all of it without once being seen.  She had laid in wait, watching.  Waiting for this moment?  Neith’s imagination of the vile things Wren and Ihaka had endured were amplified by her being trapped in a physical reconstruction of the horror scenes they had known.  Those poor girls.  Neith felt sick imagining being in to this space with an older aggressor while young and unsure.  Her disgust did nothing to quash her growing fear of what Ihaka was capable of and what “atonement” meant.

 “Then I realised: Longest Day was the perfect time to make it right.  All of it.  I could slip away unnoticed…”  She released a tortured giggle.  Neith winced with her one good eye, feeling assaulted by the sound.  She hadn’t missed the confirmation though.  None of the hostile things Neith had found had been Tai’s style.  Tai hadn’t hidden anything.  “…a sacrifice at the time of harvest could cleanse everyone; let Nydia be reborn and flourish.  We’ve all been stained by what was done.” 

Neith felt paralysed. 

No one was coming. 

She was on her own – no one was coming to save her.  She wasn’t sure how to overcome the fear and grief that engulfed her.  She needed productive emotions.  Pity.  She needed to get back to the place where she was before – where she could feel pity more than fear for this damaged soul.  She could work with pity.  But maybe she did deserve this?  Neith had lied to people she cared about and could see no way she could make things better.  She was broken before she came here.  And what had happened to Ihaka – that wasn’t her fault.  Maybe Ihaka could take care of her own pain and Neith could let her do it.  Neith’s life could matter instead of being used to make decisions she had no right to make.  What was the worst Ihaka could do?  She could kill Neith.  But that was going to happen anyway – she had been waiting her entire life to die. 

But that wasn’t what she wanted anymore.  She wanted out.  She wanted to talk to Elle.  She wanted to see Miles.  She wanted to find a way to keep MinSci out of Nydia.

She needed to get back to pity.  Neith considered a much younger Ihaka – deprived the security of an internal chip for her parents to receive alerts from – trapped, and alone, in a place like this.  She considered years of Ihaka feeling unloved.  She thought of Tai – not stopping any of the bad things that were happening to his own sister.  She couldn’t get all of the way back to feeling pity, so a trembled betrayed her fear when she spoke.  “I’m sorry.”  Neith said.

“You’re sorry!?”  Neith felt Ihaka’s spittle on her this time.  She couldn’t wipe it off.

“I am.” She attempted to swallow the tremor in her voice.  “Unimaginable things have happened to you.  Things no one deserves.   And I’m sorry for that.”

“I’m pretty sure your leg’s broken.”  Pity might help Neith to cope but it wasn’t helping things with Ihaka, who had shifted the focus back to remind Neith who the weak one was here.

“Right.”  That explained a few things. Like blacking out when she kicked earlier.

“It happened when you fell.  It doesn’t look good.  It complicates things.”  Complicated – the word of the day, the month – the year!  “I was going to help you walk earlier, before everyone woke up.  But since you passed out again, we’ve lost our window.  There’s too much risk.”  A frustrated sigh. 

“Walk…where?”

“To the waterfall.”  Ihaka smiled. 

It sent a chilling gasp down Neith’s throat.  She could not let Ihaka get her to the waterfall.  Whatever was planned there was not going to end well.  “I’m pretty sure if I move that leg again, I’ll pass out.” 

“I noticed.”  Ihaka’s eyes looked past Neith in thought.  “I can work with passed out.  I just can’t do it by daylight.  Tonight.  Tonight I can come back and you can hop until you do pass out, and then I can drag you until you wake up again.”  The waterfall was far.  Maybe Jamin – bear-like – could do this, but not some frail teacher’s assistant.

Maybe Neith could make things a little more complicated.  “I’m not sure I can even hop any distance.  I think…I think I’m starting to get a migraine.”

“What?” 

“I…I…can’t see very well.”  She closed her eye and lay very still.

 “But we haven’t finished!  There are things I want you to know, so you understand –your life is going to matter now.  Miles could be with you, I would respect it if it was God’s will for him to pair himself to a cursed fig tree – but Miles – everyone, they’re thinking so small.  We have to think bigger.  You can help all of Nydia.  One blood sacrifice could heal so much.”  Neith remained quiet, partly to sell the migraine story, but mostly in fear of this fanatic she could scarcely understand.  She did not want to hear more of this woman’s version of religion; it resembled nothing she’d seen in the quiet observances of Elle’s home.  Neith hoped maybe the council had been privy to the details of her arrival, via Jamin.  Maybe Ihaka had heard Neith suffered from migraines.  Jamin had reported having searched her and found her and all her things clear of tech – surely he had needed to explain how he’d managed that.  Maybe not – maybe they thought she’d consented to the search.  For the first time, Neith hoped everyone in Nydia had talked about her medical history, so it would corroborate her current claim. 

Why didn’t Ihaka take care of the sacrifice here?  Why the trip to the waterfall?  She’d mentioned the hill.  Did she need to execute her plan on a hill?  Did she need water? 

“Some part of you can hear me.  He knows.  You were sent here right when I knew something must be done.  And I gave you opportunity to leave.  But you accepted your place here, you accepted this.  There is a higher purpose.”  Ihaka seemed to have run out of wind with a fading audience. Even if she hadn’t bought the migraine, Neith had passed out enough times that it was becoming clear getting her to the waterfall wasn’t going to be as easy as Ihaka had envisioned. Ihaka was moving.  Ihaka’s hand was on Neith’s face again.  Neith fought the urge to recoil – or at least hold her breath.  “I’ll be back at nightfall with my tools.” Orange light spilled through her eyelids as the hide’s covering was raised then gently returned to cast an almost total shadow.

Neith was alone in the dark.  Her imagination had not ignored her rational urge to quieten.  No one was coming.  And she wasn’t just going to die, she was going to be part of a higher purpose…involving tools. 

She vomited into the dirt.  


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